Athanasius was born in the late third century A.D. (ca. 295). Little is known about his family or educational background, except that he was trained for the ministry at the historic center in Alexandria, Egypt. He had a great passion for God and his Word, which inspired his friend Gregory of Nazianzus to write, “From meditating on every book of the Old and New Testaments, with a depth such as none else has applied even to one of them, he grew rich in contemplation, rich in splendor of life” (Oration 21.6).
It is not surprising, then, to hear that Athanasius wrote two significant works before he was twenty years old, after which he was ordained as a Deacon in 319, played a significant role in the Council of Nicaea in 325, and was ordained Bishop of Alexandria in 328. As Bishop, he received immediate and sustained opposition from the Arians and others who sympathized with them. Since he was short and dark-skinned, his opponents mockingly referred to him as “the black dwarf,” and succeeded in sending him into exile no less than five times. But by the grace of God, he regained his Bishopric for the last time in 366 and served in that role until his death in May of 373.
Athanasius’ primary achievement was that he almost single-handedly defended the doctrines of the trinity and the incarnation against Arius and his followers. Arius argued on philosophical grounds that God cannot be divided, and that therefore Christ was created by God the Father at some point in time. Athanasius countered this false doctrine on biblical grounds by demonstrating that only God can save, and that therefore Christ must be God. His arguments were multifaceted and complex, but for our purposes the most important thing to understand is that, unlike Arius, Athanasius was committed to upholding biblical truth over philosophical respectability.
As Christopher A. Hall notes, “Whereas Arius began with certain philosophical presuppositions concerning God’s indivisibility, Athanasius started his exploration of the Son by studying Scripture’s answer to the question, ‘What must God do if humanity is to be saved from sin?’” (Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, 59-60). Indeed, Arius began with philosophy and sought to mold biblical texts to his preconceived notions. Athanasius began with biblical texts and sought to mold the church’s teachings to them without regard for the approval of the philosophical community.
It is hard to describe in so short a space how serious this controversy was, but suffice it to say that if Athanasius had not stood, the church could well have fallen. Next week we’ll consider the themes of brokenness and grace in Athanasius’ life, but for now let’s give thanks to God for “the black dwarf” who loved the Lord our God with all of his heart and soul and mind and strength, and who stood firm until the day of his death.